1. The Star Wars trilogy
There is nowhere else this list or story could begin than in a galaxy far, far away with a Corellian blockade runner being pursued by an Imperial Star Destroyer. This is the only movie on this list that I don’t remember seeing for the first time (I turned 2 the summer it was released), but my parents tell a good tale: like older Jonathan, young Jonathan couldn’t shut up, so they brought a friend along, ready to whiz me away if I lived up to my regular billing, so that they and my brother could enjoy. Instead, I sat transfixed and speechless, until late in the film when I’d appreciatively intone “Daa Vader” at the right moments. This movie would come to dominate my play life as a child. I’d continue to watch each movie slavishly (or is that Slave-1-ishly?), play it with my friends, play the spinoff games, have heated arguments over whether Han or Luke was better (seriously, who were these odd friends who thought Luke was better?), and more. It laid down a gauntlet for how fun movies could and should be, in other words, then did likewise with toys, games, and more. And of course the galaxy never truly went away, with The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi proving as consequential to my childhood, as fun, and as central to my playworld. Yes, it’s pastiche of pastiche of pastiche, but the imagination that went into it is still amazing, the Cantina scene and Jabba’s Palace in particular sparkled, and even the lamer performances (Luke, in A New Hope) are endearing and are offset by Ford, Fisher, and the Falcon. When I attended Christian schools and people spoke of God, my mental referent was Obi-Wan Kenobi, so I guess you could say it very nearly approximated my religion … and then many years later I reported as a Jedi in the 2001 UK census, making that official (if only deviously).
2. Raiders of the Lost Ark
As if Harrison Ford didn’t have enough of it already, Raiders solidified his role as master of my playtime, while John Williams solidified his role as the musical voice of pretty much every emotion I’d feel for a decade or more. I’m so glad I got to be a child in the heyday of Lucas and Spielberg (and indeed, I had to resist the urge to fill this list with Spielberg alone), not just because I loved their films, but because my Dad and brother adored them too, and our joint excitement was matched only by the fervid anticipation of watching the next and the next and the next. Almost every scene here is memorable, from the flight from the Hovitos to Marion winning her drinking competition in Nepal, to the Cairo marketplace, to those snakes (why’d it have to be snakes?), to Indy’s crawl under the moving truck, to melting Nazis, and to the haunting image of the Ark being put away in a massive governmental oubliette of world culture.
3. Beverly Hills Cop
By being a child in the 80s, I was also a child of the VCR. At first that meant endless treks to rental places, and whereas the knowledgeable clerk is a part of many people’s nostalgic memories, I had no such thing. Indeed, many of my rental places were corners of general stores with a few revolving tapes. No algorithm pushing this or that, no Internet to research, and outside of the US little word of mouth to help, so I waded through a lot of crap, and a lot of World Wrestling Federation. Then we started traveling to (and eventually living in) South East Asia and frequenting piracy stalls and stores, and alongside the slow process of trawling through lots of bad content to find a bit of good was opened up the option to buy copies of favorites and watch them obsessively. Probably the first film our family loved and hence watched again and again and again was Beverly Hills Cop. It’s still pretty unique for mixing comedy and action so successfully (and not just goofily, as in Rush Hour), and Eddie Murphy was at his peak. I debated giving this spot to Trading Places or Ruthless People, two other films that were well worth the negligible amount of Thai baht we paid for them in the most professional (and best air-conditioned) pirating store I ever went into, but both owe a debt to Beverly Hills Cop, as it’s through Beverly Hills Cop that I found their respective stars Murphy and Judge Reinhold. BHC also had by far the best soundtrack, a true 80s tour de force of synthesizers, saxophones, and The Pointer Sisters.
4. Nightmare on Elm Street
Around this time, I also discovered the horrible amplifying effect that bad pirating could have on horror movies. As if the fears of who lay around a corner, or of their sudden act of jumping out, weren’t bad enough, poor video made it even harder to see who was where, and awful audio required ratcheting the volume so that the reveal was as loud as could be. Nightmare on Elm Street in particular suffered or benefited from this treatment. I realize now, too, that its interest in teen sexuality came to scare my pre-teen self considerably. It was a bad film, let’s be honest, and my search for scene grabs reminded me of this, and of its tawdriness, but for whatever reason(s), and in spite of the nightmares it wrought, I kept watching it again and again.
5. Stand By Me
I watched nothing more than Stand By Me, though. For about three years of my life, I could recite its entire script, musical cues and all. I adored Stephen King’s treatment of pre-teen boys when I was a pre-teen boy, as he was the only writer who seemed to get how we spoke, how we related, and what weighed on our minds. This transferred beautifully to Stand by Me, which shifts seamlessly between fears about loss and about growing up, and obsession with (and camaraderie through) candy, puke, and farts. Though my own parents were amazing, too, like King’s masterpiece It, Stand be Me knows that many parents are absent, vicious, and cruel, and that many kids need to parent themselves. It gets that, to a pre-teen, being a pre-teen can be simultaneously the best, the hardest, the most fun, and the most terrifying thing out there. And it gets that friendships forged in that space, in the threshold between childhood and adulthood, can be the most complete and important. As Richard Dreyfus’ narrator ends the film, “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was 12. Jesus, does anyone?” I can still go back to it and find it deeply moving and great fun. Plus, it’s something of a mind-bender: whoever thought, in 1986, that of child superstars River Phoenix and Corey Feldman, and unknowns Wil Wheaton and Jerry O’Connell, O’Connell would be the one whose career would last the longest?
6. Young Guns
In the 80s, I lived in countries that received many/mostly American movies, but that got them much later than North America. So trips to the US or Canada were regularly chances for me to watch an ungodly amount of films. One summer in Toronto, I practically lived in the city’s cineplexes. Included in that summer’s marathon was a one-off in my movie-watching life, when I first watched Young Guns … and then walked right back in and watched the next showing. I was already all-in for Kiefer Sutherland and the film hit me at the right time. Whereas I will happily go back to Stand By Me anytime, Young Guns is more embarrassing, just a bunch of guys shooting at things and being badass. Still, I treasured my poster of it for years, watched it many, many times, and found it infinitely fun at the time.
7. The Godfather I & II
The Godfather is the first film I remember being told I should watch (or at least the first for which I listened to the suggestion) when the reasons weren’t “because it’s super fun/funny/badass.” Movies weren’t cauliflower in my family, and you didn’t engage because you were required. But amidst our collection of pirated videos were copies of The Godfather I & II, and my Dad and brother insisted I should watch them because they were great films, and the way they talked of them marked them as different from my usual fare – the pitch was about superb acting, smart storytelling, and depth. These weren’t bad things, to be clear, just not things that younger Jonathan thought he needed in a movie. And thus for the films to be pitched this way to me, and for that pitch to work, suggests they really played a role in expanding my movie-going and film-watching to include more serious fare. It would be several years till I’d read Puzo’s novel too, but when I did this served as another key moment, insisting that adaptation could be entirely a good thing, offering positive transformation, since the movies are so very much better than Puzo’s odd novel, especially for dumping the whacked storyline about Sonny’s penis (seriously, if you haven’t read it, that’s a major storyline).
8. The Sweet Hereafter
Atom Egoyan’s Exotica blew me away. I still remember how weird and cool it was to see Canadian money on screen, but beyond that it was full of atmosphere and depth, putting Egoyan on my radar. I distinctly remember then seeing the trailer for The Sweet Hereafter and hearing the entire theater gasp in unison at the sight of a school bus carrying all the children in the town going off the road and through the ice. The movie kept this emotional intensity. The story from Ian Holm about his child’s allergic reaction and being prepared to cut her throat to save her if needed, juxtaposed with images of him talking to his addict daughter, now an adult, via pay phone and having no idea how to help her are devastating. Egoyan’s image of parenthood and concern with parental care and abuse is dark, as is his willingness to show such a broad range of very, very damaged people. But it also felt honest in a way that few other films I knew were prepared to be, and willing to deal with an ugly world, not just an awesome one. The fact that it was Canadian made it all the better.
I forget exactly why my roommate Percy and I decided one month to watch everything by Akira Kurosawa, or exactly which film set us off, but having come home to Vancouver from my first MA, with no job for a while, I had plenty of time. And I had been working my way through Best Of lists for film, and going to Vancouver’s amazing specialty rental palace that gave prospective workers a quiz, Videomatica, and it was time to dive into Kurosawa. It was an amazing month (we challenged ourselves to finish all of Kurosawa’s films by the end of the month) with many highlights. Kagemusha and Throne of Blood astounded me, some of his calmer and more modern pieces like Ikiru and Dersu Uzala were beautiful, Seven Samurai deserves all its praise, and the Star Wars fan in me found its blueprint for Return of the Jedi and Hidden Fortress’ blueprint for A New Hope cool. Nothing disappointed. But the King Lear fanboy in me was predictably primed to love Ran the most, a stark adaptation, visual tour de force, and gorgeous film with such a different sense of pace from anything I’d seen to date (except other films by Kurosawa). That month gave me for the first time the sense that perhaps I could and should be analyzing this kind of stuff more deeply, that the skills I’d learned in studying lit could and should be adapted and supplemented in studying media instead.
10. After Life
Back to grad school I went, now in media studies, and I continued to watch my way through all sorts of great classic and contemporary films in London. The one that grabbed me the most by far was Hirokazu Koreeda’s After Life. The set-up is wonderfully compelling: after death, everyone goes to a sort of limbo, a community center sort of place in which staff interview you about your life. Their task is to help you work out the one moment when you were happiest. Then they film that moment, replay it to you, and in reliving it through watching, you advance to the permanent afterlife with just that moment, a personal Heaven. The interviews are beautiful, touching, and at times wrenching. The adoration of film is endearing. And it offered all sorts of grist for discussion about death, life, best moments, and more with friends. It’s still a total favorite of mine.
11. The Lord of the Rings trilogy
I really adored these books growing up, and read them through several times. So the prospect of seeing them brought to life was both worrying and exciting. It finally opened when I was down at my parents’ place in Redruth, Cornwall, and we went to the local cinema with bad sound and a cold draught. For three hours, though, I was entranced. My wife (then girlfriend) came with me and reported that it was fun to watch my face as I saw all sorts of things happening. Subsequent Hobbit stuff, and the trilogy’s size, made it cool for many to shit on the trilogy, but I still think it was amazingly well done. And the DVDs just added more. I’ve even wondered whether Star Wars would’ve gotten the same love from me as a franchise if Lord of the Rings got to me first as a child. Sacrilege, I know, so let’s hustle onwards …
My videogame and movie lists are, I’m quite aware, very boy-ish. Even the more critically revered films on this list are about gangsters and samurai, the women that appear in the above films tend to have restricted, lame roles, with only a few exceptions, and my video game favorites cut a similar path through pirates, rangers, and gangsters. I wish I could lie and suggest that my media choices growing up were wonderfully feminist and paved a road for me. If I repeated the exercise looking only at the last five years, they’d be better, but that was my childhood. In one respect, creating these lists has therefore served as a nice reminder that one’s life is more than one’s media choices. My Dad and brother have been invoked in these lists, but outside my gaming and movie-watching, my Mum was the ever-present parent whose shining example gave me much of what’s good in me, and she ensured that playing with guns and swords didn’t define me. She made me more than even Star Wars. Still, these also left me worried, when I learned we were having a baby girl, what kind of messages were out there for her? Thankfully, I’ve since been delighted to see how much excellent media is being made for young girls, and how much of it allows women and girls to be so much more than the things I watched and played as kids ever did. Moana looms large here, following in the wake of Frozen and Tangled, as Disney gave girls and princesses more agency, more power, more independence. Boys’ and men’s media is full of the bold declarations of self (“I am ____ and I’m here to make you pay”), and I’ve been happy to see this trope appear in several movies with strong women, few better than when Moana belts out with pride “I am Moana!” Her pride and belief in herself, her bravery, her poise is all admirable, as is the fact that this declaration of self wasn’t underlined by raining bullets upon her enemies. I love that my daughter could watch this and sing along, and it closes out this list since it represents to me a hope that one day my daughter can write lists like these and fill them with great fare of which she and I will both be proud, and that her task will be hard only because she’ll have trouble choosing from so many options.